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Proposed Workers Comp Changes Worry Pain Doctors

OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy, Feb. 19, 2013.

Photo by Associated Press

Above: OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy, Feb. 19, 2013.

At a time when the epidemic of opioid abuse continues unabated, the California Department of Workers Compensation wants to stop paying for certain nonopioid therapies for chronic pain.

The agency's proposed changes include dropping coverage for a treatment pain doctors say is highly effective: spinal cord stimulation.

The treatment involves implanting a small device near the spine. The device generates electrical pulses that keep pain messages from reaching the brain.

Dr. Mark Wallace, chair of the division of pain medicine at UC San Diego Health, said without this option, many injured workers will have a tough time.

"They're going to have to resort to therapies that we don't think work as well, that have more side effects, like the opioids. A lot of pain medications have cognitive side effects," Wallace explained.

The cost of a spinal cord stimulation device and the operation to install it can top $30,000. But Wallace said the therapy can actually reduce costs in the long run.

"That's because it reduces medications patients will need to treat their pain, and it's going to reduce the number of office visits they need with their physicians," Wallace said.

The Department of Workers Compensation will hold a public hearing Sept. 6 on the proposed changes in Oakland.

The department considered and rejected similar changes two years ago.

Doctors are crying foul over the California's Department of Workers Compensation proposal to drop coverage of certain nonopioid treatments for chronic pain.

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